Since leaving for my mission more than six years ago, I have never really been in the same ward for longer than a year. Each area in the mission only lasted months, after the mission came singles wards both outside and within BYU-Idaho that changed from semester to semester. Even after getting married we ended up moving to various apartments, and then completely out of state, and now in graduate school I anticipate having to move at some point for an internship, and to wherever I may find a steady job.
While the instability has brought some challenges, it has been interesting to get the broad perspective of musical contribution in each ward. I’ve been in wards that wouldn’t even try to form a choir and wards that would give a respectable attempt to put together a choir for a Christmas number each year. On the other side of the coin was a remarkable ward that would put on a musical number every week, some by a choir, others by smaller ensembles.
In many of the wards there have been music leaders frustrated by a lack of participation for the ward choir, congregational singing, or the like. One choir leader in particular would show up faithfully every week, even though her and the choir pianist were the only people who would show up. (It was about the same time my wife was working with a difficult pregnancy, so I was struggling to participate as well).
In the midst of participating in a struggling church music program, I was also tasked with writing a research paper on the size of Bach’s church choir. Bach, uncelebrated at his time as he is now, was a Lutheran Church organist. His works span the simplest of songs for the beginning keyboardist to some of the most complex masterpieces like his chromatic fantasy and fugue. I’ve played some of his works, though also admit to avoiding them as well. They are well worth the effort, but demand a lot of it. Anyway, this letter in particular comprised Bach venting to a comrade about the sparsity of the choir he had to work with. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it?) Many musicologists argue about the idealy sized choir for the performance of Bach’s works. It is interesting to me though, that in this letter Bach says that he would have a decent performance if he had regular attendance by two people of each voice part. This was interesting for me. While there are many wards struggling on a musical level, in Bach’s opinion, all we’d need for a good functioning ward choir is two people per part. That’s a total of an 8 person choir.
(As a note: The LDS church handbook states the option of actually calling and setting apart ward members to participate in the choir. The members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are all set apart as missionaries. In my mind, calling and setting apart eight people, two per voice part, would provide for a great core for a choir that could be filled out by other volunteers from there. You can even call some of them as section leaders. Just an idea for any ward music chairmen out there).
Anyway, in my ward I’ve had the great experience of being a ward music chairman. The new ward I’ve been in, from what I hear, has had their own struggles with musical output in the past, along with the other two wards that meet in the same building. Yet as I’ve worked with the other members with music callings I’ve been coming to the sense that the only thing preventing a ward from participating confidently in ward music, is having a music leader that is able to draw out the musical skills from each members. I am of the firm opinion that every human being has musical capacities within them. (I’m sure many of you disagree, we should chat). What a successful ward music leader must do is have the skill and confidence to draw all those musical capacities out of them. We may have to think creatively, work with weird ensemble groups, or with all sorts of setbacks, weird harmonies or slow accompanists. Regardless I know it is both worth it, and possible. John Rutter, a choir composer, has said, “a church without a choir is like a body without a soul.” So for those in struggling wards, don’t give up hope. Keep fighting. For those in musically successful wards, I would encourage you to reach out to others who are not so lucky to give feedback, encouragement and instruction. There is a lot of need out there. Music can literally knit our hearts together and soften the hardest of hearts. As musical output grows across the church, so too will the spiritual power in every ward, congregation and setting.
I found this video today, I think it has much meaning for Ward choirs:
I'm a traditional christian music enthusiast. I'm one of those people that attends church for the music just as much as the sermon, one of those people that give an evil glare at the people who leave for the congregational hymns, (Ok no, not really).